Starting up, Sofia style

Boryana Dzhambazova

It’s a muggy Friday night in June. The events hall at betahaus, a workspace for freelancers and small firms in the Bulgarian capital Sofia, is packed with people. The excitement is almost as high as the temperatures outside.

As the host greets the crowd for tonight’s betapitch, a contest for startups with heats around Europe, I let my gaze wander through the audience: a colourful mixture of millennials, hipster-styled entrepreneurs, geeks and students. Next to the big projector screen, the first team is getting ready to present.

Photo provided by betahaus Sofia
Photo provided by betahaus Sofia.

Earlier that day I interviewed people from a startup based in the betahaus building. And as one of those self-employed professionals who just need a laptop and fast wi-fi to work, I ended up using the betahaus café as my office for most of the day.

Five years ago when I started freelancing, the environment for Sofia’s self-employed was much less hospitable. My only option was to work from home. I couldn’t even fit the stereotype of the writer huddled over a laptop in Starbucks – the American chain had recently opened its first coffee shop in Sofia and it was always crowded. Back then people thought “I’m a freelance journalist” was just a fancy way of saying “I’m unemployed”. Some still do.

Until recently, holding a well-paid, permanent job and thus securing long-coveted financial stability for you and your family was the ultimate dream for many. As part of the generation that grew up in the turbulent years after the fall of communism in 1989, I remember how unstable those times were. I watched my parents and many of their friends lose their jobs, their savings, their dreams.

But for the last two years, two main co-working spaces in Sofia have been buzzing -- a clear sign that attitudes are changing. These workspaces have quickly become hubs for freelancers, artists and a growing number of startups. They’re an integral part of efforts to foster a vibrant startup community.

Back on stage, it’s Stepsss’ turn to present. Three high school students started the project last year, designing a “smart insole” to let athletes monitor their walking and running and minimize the risk of injuries.

Just like their peers in Silicon Valley, London and Berlin, they’re aiming to take over the world. One smart step at a time.

Boryana Dzhambazova is a freelance journalist based in Sofia. Her fellowship story looks at the prospects for tech startups in the Balkans.

Fellow Bio

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Boryana Dzhambazova

Boryana is a freelance journalist based in Sofia.


Topic 2014: Generations

This year’s annual topic is Generations. Think of a powerful story that you have always wanted to report, and link it to this theme while crafting your proposal. Remember, it is better to have a strong central idea that is loosely linked to the annual theme than to have a weak idea that is strongly linked to the theme.